CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINEExBulletin.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Hi everyone. Cardiff and Stacey here. This is the silver planet indicator. Valerie Steele is a fashion historian in New York. She is also director of the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology. We called Valérie to ask her about the masks – the masks that people have been wearing more and more since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
VALERIE STEELE: Well, it’s interesting because the idea of masks as personal protective technology, like medical masks, surgical masks or N95 masks, is something that dates back to the end of the 19th century, where, in Europe, surgeons realized that they could help prevent germs and bacteria from their mouths from getting into people’s wounds while they were working.
GARCIA: As the coronavirus pandemic tragically continues, many people in the United States will continue to wear masks in public. And in some states and cities, masks are now mandatory or at least strongly encouraged when people are away. And we wanted to speak with Valérie because we were curious to know something. Over time, will more people start to think that masks are only part of what they wear everyday – part of their outfit?
VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And if that happens, we’ll probably all start looking for masks that match our individual styles, you know? And that, of course, could be a real business opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs in the fashion and design world who can make the masks we all want to wear.
GARCIA: Valérie says that this has already happened in other parts of the world, when they had to deal with epidemics of previous contagious diseases.
STEELE: Fast forward to the end of the 20th century. In East Asia, in the past 15 years or so with a variety of pandemics like SARS and MERS, people in Hong Kong, China and Japan have started to wear more and more masks to protect themselves but also to protect the people around them and to show some kind of civic responsibility. And not only was the wearing of the mask omnipresent; it’s a part of the world where people are very interested in fashion. And so quickly enough, you also saw fashion masks being worn.
GARCIA: Now it’s at the start of the trend, but Valerie suspects that something like that is also happening in the United States and Europe in response to the coronavirus. And a bunch of fashion designers and other companies have already turned around to sell more masks with different styles and designs. There is even a maskclub.com, which will send you a new mask every month for 9.99 …
VANEK SMITH: No.
GARCIA: … One month.
VANEK SMITH: It’s – no.
VANEK SMITH: The monthly thing is out of control.
GARCIA: It’s there. It exists.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughs) Club mask.
GARCIA: But this story is not limited to business and fashion. Right now, for example, wearing a mask is part of a cultural war here in the United States.
VANEK SMITH: Yes. People in some parts of the country are protesting the requirement to wear a mask. They do not want the government to order them to do something. Protesters say they are trying to protect their personal freedom.
GARCIA: Yes, and supporters of wearing masks say it’s a matter of science. They point to evidence showing that if you wear a mask, you are less likely to infect others if you have a coronavirus. And so that they can say that this also concerns their personal freedom – the freedom to move around in public spaces without being infected.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Valérie says that for her, wearing a mask can send a message of solidarity.
STEELE: And I think this idea of making masks (ph) is a good way to normalize them and say it’s – you don’t have to be afraid. You just have to be part of it. We are all there together.
GARCIA: Now, traditionally, in a non-pandemic period, masks were considered symbols of challenge or rebellion or even of secrecy or danger. Bank robbers wear them in movies; outlaws, rebels, cowboys too. In fashion, it always gives masks a certain cachet – a cool cachet, says Valérie.
STEELE: It’s a plus to be scary and dangerous in fashion.
GARCIA: (laughs) Oh, really?
STEELE: There is a huge stamp with the kind of evil charisma.
GARCIA: Of course, in the non-fashion and non-Hollywood world, masks can also be perceived as threatening. But now, during the pandemic, wearing a mask often means you follow the rules. The intention is to be safe and to communicate this solidarity. But it is still a psychological association with masks different from the one that people had before the pandemic.
VANEK SMITH: And that’s where fashion could play a role in connecting these two associations. When designers customize a mask and offer more variety, they can preserve what makes them attractive, making them cool and stylish, and even fun. So, you know, if you like dystopian or mysterious or edgy masks, you might have this option. The point is, if making fashionable masks also convinces more people to wear them, then wearing a mask itself may seem less threatening. It could be normal or maybe even fun, exciting. After the break, we will talk to a fashion designer who has seen her business dry up almost entirely until she turns to making masks.
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VANEK SMITH: Chelsea Klukas is the founder of Lumen Couture. It’s a shop for a woman – just her. And it makes wearable clothes, which are fashion items that integrate electronics and technology into stuff you can wear. She creates fancy red carpet-style dresses that sparkle and sparkle when you walk for, you know, very high-end events and ceremonies.
GARCIA: Yes, among other products – but since the start of the pandemic, the types of events where people would wear these clothes have been canceled, so fewer people want these dresses. Chelsea has therefore shifted most of its business to making masks, which people now want. She designed a black mask that has a screen on the front almost like a dashboard, saying things like, six feet apart.
CHELSEA KLUKAS: And the cool thing about the technology I work with is that it’s really, really thin, so it’s about as thick as a sheet of paper and just as flexible. It is therefore a small, very thin electronic part that can be programmed to display text.
VANEK SMITH: Chelsea has a relationship with manufacturers in China, and they manufacture masks and electronics. And then she assembles them herself before sending them to customers. So far, it has sold around 500 masks. And, in fact, about 75% of Lumen Couture sales today are masks. It has gone from 0% to 75% in the past few months alone. And Chelsea said she didn’t know they would become so popular when she started making them by hand.
KLUKAS: It was, like, a Sunday morning. I started sewing. And then I record a short explanatory video and put it on YouTube. And it really, really resonated.
GARCIA: The masks, which Chelsea sells online, each cost $ 95, so they’re a bit expensive as the masks go. Now remember that his masks also include this added electronic component. Chelsea says that at first, she was a little uncomfortable making money with masks during a pandemic, so she donates a lot of what she sells to a COVID charity. In addition, his videos to make are always online if people want to try to create their own masks and not spend money.
VANEK SMITH: And, obviously, Chelsea needs to make a profit by selling the masks. It is his business. And like everyone who works for a salary, Chelsea must be paid for the time she spends making masks. In addition, there is a trading lesson here. The demand for its other products has completely collapsed, so Chelsea moved its offer to make masks. And these are in demand.
KLUKAS: We have seen other companies doing the same. Certainly, there are other brands of clothing that have very quickly turned to the sale of masks and even on – the clothing that has somehow oriented their business models towards the things they need is something very important for every business, while just filling the demand for things people want.
GARCIA: Now Chelsea don’t know – nobody knows – whether the masks will stay in such high demand for a while or whether it’s temporary. But if it’s not temporary, she says …
KLUKAS: It will really change the way we think about fashion and accessories and even the way we think about makeup, like, you know – rest your bold lip because everyone will wear masks. And, you know, we will have to focus on our eyes. So I think it could be something that sticks. And it’s interesting to think about how it changed fashion and accessorization, which, you know, really, for a long time, there has been no introduction of a new accessory to this type of balance.
VANEK SMITH: No more daring lips for you, Cardiff. Sorry.
GARCIA: (laughs) Yeah. It’s time I start …
VANEK SMITH: You’re going to have to be seen.
GARCIA: … pointing out my eyes. Yes, exactly (laughs).
VANEK SMITH: This is smizing (ph), Cardiff. I’ll tell you about it after the show.
GARCIA: OK (laughs). But I think the lesson from what Chelsea is doing is that for many of us, masks are probably going to remain something we need, at least in the short term. And so, what she and other fashion designers and manufacturers are doing is trying to make sure that we can also get them in the style we want.
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, verified by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.
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NPR transcripts are created on an urgent basis by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR entrepreneur, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR programming is audio recording.
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